First Mennonite Church
August 21, 2016
When Death Knocks on the Door
Text: Psalm 88; Mark 15:33-41
If Psalm 23 is the most familiar psalm in the Bible and if Psalm 100 is the most joyous, Psalm 88 is the saddest psalm of all. Some believe that this psalm was born out of Israel’s exile experience. Some others see in this psalm the pain and despair of a person with leprosy (v. 8, 9). Psalm 88 is indeed a song of pure lament and it echoes the spirit of Psalms 6, 38, and 41. Although the latter psalms are of lament and supplication for healing, there are confessions of hope as the result of their prayer to God. However, Psalm 88 does not include any sign of hope.
For many who have witnessed a long period of illness in their loved ones or have experienced it themselves, they compare that period of ongoing illness like a low hanging dark cloud over the family. Families with sick loved ones often feel that nothing brings them joy. Birthdays, anniversaries, and what had been other family festive occasions lose their joy and excitement. On the other hand, the one who is ill goes through periods of extreme frustration, anger, or sadness. In some cases, the one who is ill even feels guilty when the family refrains from doing certain things it used to do.
In my early 20s one of my friends died. He was younger than me. I first met Jaime (Jim) at our youth camp. He was very much a happy young man. Although he did not have the support of his family, Jaime was a believer. Sometime later I found out he was very sick. I remember visiting Jim and his family. Laughter and crying were at the surface of every conversation. They wanted to encourage and stay positive for Jim, yet at the same time they were overwhelmed by his helpless condition. I remember the last time I talked with Jim. That day I was attending a pastors’ retreat. Two other pastors and I took time out to take Jim to the hospital in Belize City. As we got ready to leave the retreat center, Jaime pleaded with me for an encouraging answer, “Pastor, am I going to die?” He asked me. “I do not want to die. I want to be well and enjoy life like you do,” he said with tears in his eyes. That was the last conversation I had with Jaime.
Psalm 88 is a prayer of lament of someone whose life was ebbing away. And although the psalmist gives no hint of hope, the very fact of offering his heart wrenching lament to God in prayer is indicative of his trust in God. Thus the psalmist pleads:
O Lord, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
Just like my friend Jim, the psalmist did not want to die. Whether it was because the psalmist was young, or because he believed there was more he could do, but the psalmist did not want to die. Whatever the reason, he wanted to stay alive. There are times I have spoken to people in their deathbeds and they say they are ready to die. Some have told me how grateful they are to have lived their days and to have enjoyed the love of their families. Some told me of the peace they have in their heart and the confidence they have in the word of God.
Throughout Psalm 88, we find not only an incessant supplication before God but also a desperate sense of loneliness. The psalmist cries to God night (v.1) and day (v.9), every day and every morning (v.13). He feels abandoned and given up on as if he were already dead (v. 4, 5, 8). His feels abandoned, not only by his close friends but by God also (v. 6, 7).
When Jesus hung on the cross and was breathing his last, he also felt the agony of death closing in on him. His cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” has been compared to what people on their deathbeds often feel about their impending death. Yet we know that Jesus’ cry was because the curse of sin was weighing on him. For many who feel hopeless, insecure about the destiny of their soul, the sense of abandonment, fear, and hopelessness does make them distressed and full of anxiety when they are dying.
In light of the psalmist’s realization that his condition was not improving he asks God a chain of rhetorical questions. They are all about what is possible or not possible after death.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
Although these questions implied a “no” answer, what is truly amazing about the psalmist is his utter trust in praying to God. That is called faith. The psalmist seems not to have the slightest idea for his questions, yet he brought them to God. How much more should we not pray? We now have clear promises in Christ as to what happens when we die. I believe the concern most dying people have is not about what will happen to them after they die, but for their loved ones who are staying behind. Which, of course, should not be if we indeed believe in God.
The indirect question the psalmist raises is: What happens when we die? I would like to explore what the Bible says about this question next week.
But in conclusion today, let me say that this psalm should remind us of two important realities. The first is that death is true, just as life is. Hebrews 9, verses 26 and 27 says that just as Jesus died once and for all a sacrificial death, “people are destined to die once and then face God’s judgment.” We live and will die someday. But although some have sudden a death, many die after a long period of illness or declining health. The psalmist speaks of his sense of abandonment by God and his close companions. The reminder for us here is to visit a friend who has been ill for a while. Let us not allow that any of our friends comes to a point of feeling abandoned. Go and pay a visit; give that friend a phone call, or send her a note. Remind your friend that you are praying for him or her. Let us become reminders of God’s presence to those who are ill by visiting them.
The other important reality is that when our time to go comes, we too might like to see the faces of our friends. In their faces we will see the face of God, quoting Jacob in Genesis.
This psalm is also a reminder that even Christians go through very difficult times of unrelenting suffering. Many faithful believers go through much tragedy, misfortune, and pain as they go through life. This Psalm is a model of how to address God in those situations. God will listen to our cries even when we might believe God does not hear them. We should remember Job or Paul and his thorn in the flesh, which the Lord refused to take away. Another lesson from this Psalm is that life is very short compared to eternity, yet the way we live this short time defines our eternal destiny.
May the Lord help us to trust in him in our darkest hour. May the Lord sustain our hope when we have no earthly hope of getting better. May we pray like Job did,
“And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes—I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!”
The Bible teaches that humans are composite creatures, that is, we have body and spirit. Paul in Thessalonians speak of spirit, soul and body (1Thess. 5:23). The Bible tells us God formed the human body out of clay—the material and perishable part. But it also tells us God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, which is the spirit (Genesis 2:6). And man became a living being. Human life is different from animal life because humans carry not only the image of God but also the breath of life God breathed upon it. When we die, our body goes to the ground. “The dust returns to the dust” is how Genesis describes human death (3:19). But the where does the spirit go?
There are various view of what happens after death, from annihilation to reincarnation. There are also various ideas about where the soul or spirit of the dead goes. Islam speaks of paradise. Catholics speaks of purgatory. Evangelicals are like to say the believer’s soul goes to heaven when she or he dies.
The Bible does not give a clear cut teaching on what happens after death. But there are some passages in the Bible that help us put together an image albeit sometimes hard to harmonize. On possible reason is because the New Testament put death under the power and resurrection of Jesus. It also presents Jesus as Lord, who promises life and life abundant. Therefore, it becomes unnecessary for the Bible to teach in detail what happens after death or about the world of Hades—the underworld.
In some cases the concepts used in the New Testament to speak on issues related to death is borrowed from other religions or cultures. Yet, although the NT borrows concepts from elsewhere, the New Testament writers or even Jesus gave those concepts a new meaning.